I think our culture is stuck. I think the frustration I feel, that it seems so many feel with the logjam in Washington right now is just the obvious emergence of a broader frustration that permeates our whole culture. Frustration has a very useful property. Artists become aware of it early on. I talk about frustration with my students because frustration is inevitable when we are trying to do something beyond what we can do now. It is a symptom of energies beneath the surface churning against some obstacle that doesn’t yet move out of the way. It is evidence that something is about to happen, that enormous resources are being brought to bear on a place we are stuck and that a breakthrough may be near.
I have been reading a book by Seth Godin called Linchpin. A few days ago I heard an interview with Jeremy Rifkin on the Diane Rehm show and shortly after I watched a TED talk on line by Daniel Pink. The synergy of the messages was overwhelming: we can’t succeed with 19th C. resources for 21st C. problems. The Thread of all 3 pieces was the need to move away from centralized, narrowly focused, mechanical and task-oriented solutions toward individualized and creative ones.
I taught at an arts magnet high school, the creation of a visionary artist and administrator who saw an answer to many of the problems of inner city schools while others were stuck in ideas of management. But such a vision needs visionaries to sustain it, too. And that is usually against a tide of management-oriented thinking. I watched my district resolutely marching back into the 19th C. by increasing centralization, standardizing of curricula and testing, narrowing the focus of outcomes, and creating a climate of fear that reaches from the district level all the way down to the classroom. In other words, if something isn’t working well, do more of it harder and use technology to back it up. Seth Godin and John Gatto describe this as the Factory: quantize everything, focus the goals as narrowly as possible, divide them up into mechanical, repeatable steps so that compliance can be easily measured, rewarded and punished. Minimize departure from the norm; produce compliant workers as administrators, instructors, and students.
But here is where my thinking and experience as an artist and teacher leads me: frustration is not something to get rid of as quickly as possible. Our feeling stuck may be merely intolerance of a messy, incomplete churning of forces. It might be the opportunity to look into this churning, to see it as the cauldron of new invention. Could we believe it is there for growth and the chance to create something new if we let go of insistence upon old ideas, on control and uniformity, on narrow measurement of success and the impatient and compulsive need to “win?”